/ 13 March 2011

Côte d’Ivoire’s media war turns nasty

Is Côte d’Ivoire a victim of a racist global conspiracy led by France and the United Nations to oust Laurent Gbagbo and plunder the country’s resources?

Or is it a country that has been plundered by Gbago, who is losing his illegitimate grip on power as the army deserts him and his money runs out?

It depends on whose media you believe in the cocoa producing nation held hostage by a power struggle between Gbago and rival Alassane Ouattara, recognised internationally as winner of a November presidential election that Gbagbo refuses to concede.

The dispute has brought the West African state to the brink of civil war, and propaganda has become a weapon — one that is making it more dangerous for journalists to operate.

“I don’t believe anything I read in the Ivory Coast press,” said Gerard Mel, who runs a cellphone cabin service.

“Even a simple fact, they’ll tell you such wildly different versions.”

Ouattara launched a television station last month, which supporters say counterbalances state TV. But press freedom watchdogs accuse both sides of using the media they control to spread propaganda.

“What the Ivorian press is doing is dangerous,” Stephan Goue, head of the Ivorian Committee to Protect Journalists, told Reuters. “They’re so partisan. They’ve no interest in journalism or the truth. They’re playing politics.”

No newspapers have been published since Friday, when forces loyal to Gbagbo threatened the printing press not to produce pro-Ouattara papers, so it decided not to print any, Goue said.

As the propaganda war gets nastier, journalism is getting more hazardous, with many arrested, roughed up or, in the case of a pro-Gbagbo Notre Voie daily reporter, beaten to death by a pro-Ouattara mob in southern Abidjan.

First casualty of war
A front page story on the state-run Fraternité Matin on Thursday, the last available day for newspapers, accused the UN mission of plotting a war in Côte d’Ivoire. It offered no evidence to support the accusation.

Gbagbo supporters torched a UN vehicle and assaulted its driver on Saturday.

Gbagbo is said to be furious with the United Nations for recognising Ouattara’s win. State-run RTI regularly runs reports of a French-led foreign plot to oust him — playing on resentment against the French for decades of colonial rule.

UN mission chief YJ Choi warned Gbagbo’s “propagandists” on Friday that they potentially face war crimes charges.

Many of RTI’s broadcasts start “The President of the Republic of Ivory Coast His Excellency Laurent Gbagbo, elected by the Ivorian people …”

Gbagbo’s Notre Voie says France is planning “genocide”.

Meanwhile, pro-Ouattara La Patriote‘s page one on an African Union summit on Thursday reads: “Red carpets, motorcades, flashing lights: Ouattara received like a head of state.”

Ouattara papers often have to temporarily shut after receiving death threats.

With so little fact about, L’Inter and Soir Info, the two main independent papers, often find themselves running propaganda from both sides to let the audience decide.

The international press has been under attack from Gbagbo’s camp since it reported Ouattara’s win in the poll, which only worsened when it reported killings of his supporters.

Interior Minister Emile Guirieoulou denounced the foreign press for “lies” last Saturday, after they reported that Ivorian forces killed seven women at a protest.

That was despite several witnesses seeing it, the army admitting it (but later backtracking) and a video that shows the women marching, then some falling in a heap as gunshots ring out and an armoured vehicle marked “police” drives by.

BBC and Radio France International, the two main foreign stations have been cut for two weeks, with no official reason.

Two journalists for a northern television station have been held in a maximum security prison since they were snatched by pro-Gbagbo gunmen in late January. They have yet to be charged. – Reuters